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With 2:14 remaining in the third quarter of Game 1 on Monday night between the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets—the de facto NBA Finals—Kevin Durant strode to the bench, clapping his hands ferociously at head coach Steve Kerr’s decision to sub him out. He’d just cooked Nene with a mid-range pull-up jumper to continue his dominant quarter, one in which he’d proved time and time again that no individual foe could hinder his scoring onslaught.
Fifty seconds of action later, Durant entered the game for Stephen Curry, who’d thrown up a deep air ball and bricked another jumper while his superstar running mate was briefly catching his breath. The Rockets had closed the gap with an Eric Gordon triple and a drawn foul by Chris Paul on another shot from beyond the rainbow, and Kerr couldn’t wait any longer to reinsert his go-to offensive weapon, still scorching on the bench.
What a luxury for Golden State during its 119-106 road victory over the Western Conference’s top seed.
Far too often throughout this playoff run, Durant has functioned as a mere afterthought for the Dubs, which is almost unfathomable given his status as one of the five best basketball players in the world. Nonetheless, he’s ceded headlines to a red-hot Draymond Green, a version of Curry fighting his way back from injuries, and storylines encircling his adversaries (the Kawhi Leonard drama, the Anthony Davis ascension, the Jrue Holiday explosion, etc.).
The numbers were (mostly) there. He was averaging a whopping 28.0 points, 8.0 rebounds and 5.0 assists while slashing 49.3/27.9/89.1 through the first two rounds. But in some ways, strange as it may seem on the surface, he’d become an X-factor for the team—a marquee contributor who played steady, star-level basketball but still had that proverbial next gear:
Considering Durant’s remarkable skill level, the X-factor label might initially seem a misnomer. But performances like Monday night’s validate it, as he can show off his unstoppable scoring game and keep pace with unyielding bursts from the opposition that would topple mere mortals.
James Harden, doing his darnedest to reshape the narrative that he disappears in the biggest of playoff moments, was fantastic for the Rockets throughout Game 1. Dazzling the Dubs with step-back jumpers, drives to the rim and an abundance of creative finishes, he got off to a roaring start by scoring his team’s first nine points and didn’t slow down, finishing with a game-high 41 points, four rebounds and seven assists on 14-of-24 shooting from the field.
He even drew a Draymond Green technical just 67 seconds into the series and helped the much-ballyhooed “Hamptons Five” lineup stagger to an eight-point deficit in the first three minutes.
Perhaps that would’ve been enough against a Golden State squad led by “just” Curry and Klay Thompson, especially with the former struggling to find his rhythm for much of the proceedings and settling in as a pass-first point guard.
But Durant’s presence changes everything.
And the forward knew it:
To be fair, how do you stop this?
Drew Shiller @DrewShiller
This Kevin Durant bucket on Chris Paul is…….. amazing https://t.co/mtfRbgbd93
Nate Duncan @NateDuncanNBA
What a shot-making performance this has been from Durant. 10-16 on two-pointers, didn’t even matter that Capela was all over him #TwitterNBAShow https://t.co/Ml0CE69tHQ https://t.co/X6F9MdQcKe
During the third quarter alone, even with his brief hiatus on the bench, Durant went for 13 points on 5-of-11 shooting. But those numbers mask his true impact, since they don’t show his willingness to pass the ball around to an open man for a hockey assist, his defensive presence or the gravitational pull he exerts every trip down the hardwood.
The jumpers are the most obvious outward display of his skill. Durant’s smooth, effortless nature when he’s catching fire puts him in a category of his own, as some were quick to point out:
Nathaniel Friedman @freedarko
As much as we talk about LeBron as this hyper-efficient, fully-optimized piece of technology, KD kills everyone and everything while in perpetual energy-saving mode.
Even fellow NBA players couldn’t contain themselves as he rose and fired over Houston defenders short and tall:
During that third quarter, in which Golden State outscored the Rockets by seven points to take a lead it would never relinquish, everything seemed to tickle twine until his legs grew tired toward the end of the period. Those aforementioned jumpers were immaculate. His one-handed pushes from just outside the paint swished through nylon. He even drained an unfathomable runner along the baseline, seeming to shoot from behind the backboard with his impossibly long arms.
But despite finishing with a team-high 37 points on 14-of-27 shooting and putting together a veritable highlight reel all on his lonesome, the play that showcased the full extent of Durant’s impact didn’t even grace the box score.
With just under six minutes left in the third quarter, Golden State had a three-man fast-break opportunity with Curry handling the ball, Durant running toward the rim and Thompson looking to spot up on the left wing. The Rockets surely know their foes love seeking out transition treys, but every defender got sucked into the 6’11” forward’s vortex as he moved toward the hoop, neglecting to cover Thompson and watching as Curry fed his backcourt mate for an easy three.
That, in a nutshell, is gravity.
Not the kind you find on Earth in its naturally occurring form. Not the type provided by elite sharpshooters such as Kyle Korver. It’s the variety that can only be produced by a generational talent with smoke seeping from his pores.
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
Durant will cool off. That much is inevitable, though we certainly can’t predict the magnitude of the return to normalcy. Even playing at a mere MVP level would make for some sort of regression. But if he can minimize that backsliding and continue throwing flames at the hoop, Golden State will look unbeatable—yes, even against the biggest, baddest rival the NBA can throw at the Bay Area representatives.
Both teams feature All-Star backcourts, and you can make a convincing argument that the Paul-Harden combination (combined 64 PTS, 15 REB, 10 AST) outplayed the Splash Brothers (46, 10, 10) in Game 1. Draymond Green and Clint Capela both excel on defense and manage to provide offensive jolts without creating too many points off the bounce. Veteran presences are scattered throughout both starting lineups and benches, ready to contribute in a variety of manners.
But Houston doesn’t have a Durant. Nor does it have anyone who can slow down the heated-up version, instead attempting to throw Trevor Ariza, Luc Mbah a Moute, Gerald Green, Nene and others at him in a by-committee approach.
And when that doesn’t work, when Durant is allowed to function as the most high-powered X-factor in the league, the Warriors can quickly remind the basketball-watching world that they’re the defending champions and have no intention of relinquishing their grip on the Larry O’Brien Trophy anytime soon.